DAMNED IN THE USA (1991)
D. Paul Yule
Made For British TV
Fascinating and well done documentary made at the height of the moral panic fueled by the American Family Association attacking the National Endowment For The Arts in late 1989 and 1990. The artists that got their ire up were primarily Andres Serrano, the late Robert Mapplethorpe, and oddly enough rap group 2 Live Crew who ended up getting the most mileage out of the whole situation. This documentary is broken up by the on-stage comedy of Jimmy Tingle, and at first it seems like a really bad idea to have a comedian break up the proceedings to at levity to the proceedings, but it actually works well because his comedy is very topical and fairly caustic in keeping with the material at hand. His stand-up is used more as a Greek chorus to the points being made than as a cool down place to laugh.
First off, we meet Donald Wildmon, the man who started the whole ball rolling with his American Family Association, a Christian watchdog group that spends millions of hours watching TV and movies and listening to music to catalog all the indecency and offense to Christians. The idea is to put pressure on the networks, studios and advertisers to get them to back off because Christians want cleaner entertainment. Wildmon, sometime circa 1989, gets wind of Andres Serrano's controversial photograph "Piss-Christ" and wages war. He gets even more pissed off when he discovers that Serrano and many of the galleries at which his work has been shown have received grants from the National Endowment For The Arts and alerts uptight Senator Jessie Helms. Soon all hell is breaking loose on the Senate Floor as Healms and fellow conservative prick Alfonse D'Amato attack Serrano, The NEA, and pretty much art in general in an attempt to get the NEA shut down, as well as much of the "offensive" art censored.
Some of the most frightening, yet unquestionably amusing, moments in the documentary are of Helms and D'Amato freaking out when faced with the work of Serrano and most importantly the gay photographs of Robert Maplethorpe. When D'Amato throws some of the photos to the ground in anger declaring the "absolute garbage!" you can't help but to laugh at his outburst. Helms is much more savvy as he takes the nastiest of the Maplethorpe pieces and takes much time explaining how explicit, agonizing, and degrading they are, then explains how he can only hold them up for a split second because the TV cameras "will catch this obscenity".
The other side, thankfully, get their say, too, starting with Serrano who just seems confused by all the fuss. He mentions that he was raised Catholic and that it is his own business to use the iconography of his own faith to explore in his artwork. The documentary shows some of his other work that actually would be more offensive had the people trying to be outraged taken the time to look at what it actually was. But they missed the photos of come shots flying across the room in the hurry to attack the statue of Jesus being defiled.
A huge portion of the documentary surrounds the incident in Cincinnati, Ohio when the Contemporary Arts Center was temporarily shut down and its director arrested for displaying the works of Robert Mapplethorpe. Seven of his photographs were seized as obscene, including pictures of Maplethorpe himself with a bullwhip up his ass, two men engaging in water-sports, and the most controversial of the photos, two involving children with nudity. Not explicit sexuality or activity, just nudity.
Lastly, we explore the case of rap group 2 Live Crew and their album "As Nasty As They Wanna Be," which was declared obscene in several parts of Florida in 1990, resulting in several record store owners jailed for selling it. Eventually the groups lead singer and business owner Luther Campbell was arrested for obscenity for performing the material and lewd conduct on stage. A national free speech firestorm brewed, with 2 Live Crew becoming synonymous with freedom of expression. The irony here being that their music was pretty bad. Had this whole incident not happened they would have been a novelty act that had a small fan base and would've never made it big in the rap world. Musically they are nothing special and their raps are incredibly weak, even for the lightweight late eighties. They didn't create a song worth listening to until their rebuttal to the system that crucified them with the tune "Banned in the USA," but even then they lifted almost the entire musical accompaniment from Bruce Springsteen.
As I write this, President Obama has earmarked fifty million dollars toward the National Endowment for the Arts as part of his stimulus plan for the country. A good portion of that is supposed to help art programs in schools, after-school art programs, neighborhood arts programs ect., but thanks to the likes of FOX NEWS, the media is being told the money is being used by the NEA for "smut projects" and filthy "pornographic art" of which they found a whooping TWO examples: A playhouse in San Francisco running an off-color sex parody play, and a 501 C-3 funded movie theater that has played, god forbid, the movie THUNDERCRACK as a midnight show! FOX NEWS even played clips of THUNDERCRACK while the bubble-headed bimbo, robotic newscaster cried out "THIS IS WHAT YOUR TAX DOLLARS ARE GOING TO!!!"
I fucking WISH my tax dollars were going to something like that. In fact, I wish specifically my tax dollars were going to a restoration of THUNDERCRACK so it can finally get a dvd release. I'd be thrilled about that and I know a LOT Of other people who would be too.
And interview with Robert Mapplethorpe (NOT SAFE FOR WORK!!!)